Tom Cullen, longtime brain in Madigan political operation, provided testimony for feds

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When federal prosecutors tied former House Speaker Michael Madigan into a conspiracy case involving AT&T this month, they included an insider at the heart of the scandal with an overarching view of Madigan’s once-vaunted statewide Democratic organization and his secretive moves at the Capitol.

That insider is Tom Cullen.

Tom Cullen, 59, a lobbyist and former political director for House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Tom Cullen, 59, a lobbyist and former political director for House Speaker Michael Madigan. (Illinois Secretary of State)

Now, the Tribune has learned that Cullen, a lobbyist who played political point man for years on Madigan’s government staff, has testified before the ongoing federal grand jury looking into broad aspects of Madigan’s political world, which prosecutors allege included a criminal enterprise aimed at providing personal financial rewards for Madigan and his associates.

Any details Cullen offered in his testimony about Madigan and his former associates are still secret, but the blanks he could have filled in as part of Madigan’s famously tight inner circle are manifold.

The Tribune first revealed earlier this year that Cullen and his lobbying firm were at the center of an alleged scheme by AT&T Illinois to pay thousands of dollars to a former member of Madigan’s House leadership team in exchange for the speaker’s help on legislation the telephone giant wanted passed in Springfield.

Earlier this month, Cullen was named by the Tribune and other news outlets as “Intermediary 4″ in a superseding indictment against Madigan and his longtime confidant, Michael McClain, adding the AT&T allegations.

Cullen has not been charged in the case, even though his firm allegedly served as the go-between for the secret payments.

His lawyer, Thomas Anthony Durkin, declined to comment Friday on his client’s position.

To be sure, Cullen’s legal situation is a stark contrast to other Madigan loyalists caught up in the expansive probe.

McClain, 74, of Quincy, one of Madigan’s longest and closest confidants, rebuffed several efforts to get him to flip both before and after being indicted in 2020 on separate charges alleging he orchestrated a scheme by utility giant Commonwealth Edison to buy the speaker’s influence. That case is currently set for trial in March.

Another longtime member of the Madigan brain trust, former chief of staff Tim Mapes, was granted immunity from prosecution but ended up being charged with perjury after prosecutors say he lied during his March 31, 2021, grand jury appearance when asked about Madigan’s relationship with McClain.

Madigan, 80, of Chicago, has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing. He said in a written statement after being charged that prosecutors were “attempting to criminalize” legal political actions such as lobbying and job recommendations — an argument sure to arise if the case goes to trial.

Madigan’s lead attorney, Sheldon Zenner, declined to comment Friday on Cullen’s role.

For decades, Tom Cullen was one of the Madigan machine’s key engineers, holding a position of high confidence in a small group of Madigan’s confidants, whose members one longtime political insider said is so closely guarded that only the “people in the circle know who the people in the circle are.”

Cullen held the all-important position of director of Madigan’s House issues development staff, the political arm of the speaker’s government operations. In that role, Cullen became essential in screening and recruiting legislative candidates as well as determining their paths to victory.

When the speaker’s daughter Lisa Madigan ran for attorney general, Cullen was among the small cadre of people, including McClain, who met frequently to help steer her successful statewide race.

Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledged Cullen’s political acumen — even when they differed with him. In his years at the Capitol, he was known to tell politicians or lobbyists ahead of time how he planned to beat them on a legislative issue rather than stab them in the back, like many in the cutthroat world of Springfield did.

“He would always stab you in the front with a smile,” explained one longtime Democratic strategist with years of statehouse experience.

Unlike some, Cullen was friendly to his counterparts across the aisle, garnering a reputation as a “decent guy in a dirty business,” as one Republican veteran put it. But there was no doubt he was a Madigan loyalist, demonstrating a special brand of political fealty from the 1990s on the speaker’s staff and on up through his successful career as a lobbyist.

As a key political point man for Madigan when he lost the speakership in the 1994 nationwide Republican tidal wave, Cullen became one of the staffers most focused on Democrats retaking the House.

Republican state Rep. Lee Daniels remained speaker for just that one term, the only two years Madigan’s speakership was interrupted in his nationwide record 36 years of running a legislative chamber.

After Madigan retook the speakership, Cullen eventually became a contract lobbyist with an enviable book of clients and remained a fixture at the Capitol.

“He earned Madigan’s respect through his past work,” said one Republican statehouse source, who requested anonymity. “There is only a handful of people who get Madigan’s respect. Tom Cullen was one of them.”

Cullen represented a group of top political people who had graduated from Madigan’s government operations but remained intrinsic in the speaker’s obsession to stay in charge of the House.

“When you are in that rarefied air, where you have become one of the speaker’s trusted political confidants, it doesn’t matter how many clients you have or who those clients are because your first loyalty is the speaker,” the longtime Democratic strategist explained. “But for the speaker you wouldn’t have those clients.”

Like others in Madigan’s sphere, Cullen throughout his lobbying career was called upon to work on campaigns to help the speaker stay in power.

Cullen also found himself as a key political operative in headlines about Madigan over the years.

In 2014, for instance, Cullen, while lobbying for Metra, appeared in a legislative inspector general’s report focused on whether Madigan had wielded undue influence in trying to get a promotion for a Metra employee who served as a precinct captain in Madigan’s 13th Ward political operations.

Cullen also turned up in the aftermath of one of the more spectacular chapters in how Madigan reacted to #MeToo scandals among his wayward staff.

When campaign staffer Alaina Hampton called out Madigan’s longtime top lieutenant Kevin Quinn in 2018 over his alleged sexual harassment, Madigan ousted Quinn from the speaker’s state government and political operations.

But Cullen later showed up among five current and former friendly utility lobbyists who set up contracts and sent checks to Quinn upon the request of McClain, who orchestrated the payments to help give the ousted aide a softer financial landing, according to emails and bank records the Tribune obtained in 2019.

In one of those emails, the Tribune disclosed, McClain warned Quinn of the delicate political consequences if the payments that Cullen and others had made were to become widely known.

“These men are sticking their necks out knowing full well if it goes public before you are exonerated they will get the full blast from the ‘MeToo’ movement. So please honor the confidentiality,” McClain wrote.

It would soon be revealed that those payments were just one part of a much larger federal criminal investigation into ComEd’s alleged efforts to influence Madigan’s official actions.

Cullen’s list of high-octane clients has ranged from health care and pharmaceuticals to gambling and utilities. He once represented ComEd but ended up leaving years ago in a political flap, and, perhaps fortuitously, spent the last several years as a lobbyist for Ameren, the downstate utility that he still lists as a client.

Instead, the client that eventually landed Cullen in hot water was AT&T Illinois, a subsidiary of the national telephone giant that, like ComEd, hired a stable of lobbyists and consultants with ties to Madigan to push for legislation in Springfield.

According to a statement of facts admitted by AT&T Illinois in a deferred prosecution agreement, Madigan’s office in 2015 had blocked a controversial bill that the telephone company was pushing to end costly landline service to its nearly 1.2 million customers.

After that defeat, an executive circulated a “lessons learned” memo that contained one section headed, “Speaker Madigan.” The memo stated AT&T had not been as “helpful” as ComEd when “requests” were made from the speaker’s camp, according to the statement.

Two years later, AT&T found a way to help, according to the statement. In February 2017, the company launched a plan to kick money to retiring Democratic state Rep. Edward Acevedo, who had served as Madigan’s assistant majority leader in the House and was starting his own lobbying business, according to the statement, which identified Acevedo only as “FR-1.”

In an email exchange that March, AT&T Illinois’ director of legislative affairs asked two of the company’s executives if they were “100% certain” they would get credit “from the powers that be” if the payments were made through an intermediary, rather than directly to Acevedo.

“I would hope that as long as we explain the approach to McClain and (the associate) gets the money then the ultimate objective is reached,” one of the executives wrote back, according to the statement.

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That’s when Cullen allegedly stepped in. On April 5, 2017, the AT&T legislative affairs director sent another email directing an employee to increase the payments the company was making to Cullen & Associates, identified in the statement only as “Company 4.”

The email stated the funds would allow Cullen to “bring on an additional asset” who would “make a difference with House Democratic Leadership views on advancing AT&T strategies” for the landline legislation, according to the statement.

Later that month, according to AT&T’s admissions in court, Cullen attended a meeting with AT&T employees and Acevedo to discuss a cover story for the payments: to “prepare a report on the political dynamics of the General Assembly’s and Chicago City Council’s Latino Caucuses.”

Acevedo balked at first, saying the payments were too low. But he agreed to the deal after McClain stepped in and said the amount was “sufficient.”

From June 2017 to January 2018, AT&T made nine monthly payments of $10,000 to Cullen’s firm, with $2,500 from each installment earmarked for Acevedo, for a total of $22,500. The report was never done and Acevedo did no other work on AT&T’s behalf, according to the statement in the federal case.

Meanwhile, after a protracted fight, the landline bill passed during the final hours of the spring 2017 legislative session — with Madigan’s direct assistance, according to legislative records and the statement of facts agreed to by AT&T.

Acevedo, 59, was not charged as part of the alleged AT&T scheme. He was sentenced earlier this year to a year in federal prison on tax charges related to the ComEd probe. He is serving his sentence at a medium-security federal prison in North Carolina and is due to be released on Dec. 5. His attorney has declined to comment.

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October 30, 2022 at 08:52AM

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